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Nothing gave me so much contentment in childhood as curling up somewhere with a good book and losing myself for a while. And if one good book was a pleasure, then summer reading – book after book after book – was a feast.

In that spirit, I made a list of the best books I’ve read this past year – a feast of summer reading for you:

(In no particular order)

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – Will we ever run out of stories to tell about World War II? The sheer number of books and films in this genre speaks to the importance of telling a story from multiple perspectives, whether in fiction or real life. Doerr’s novel is a great addition to the shelf. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing to the present day, it tells the story, in parallel narratives, of a French girl and a German boy. Both of them damaged in some way, and struggling to survive the war, they touch, and even save, each other’s lives in improbable ways, over space and time. It is only rarely a happy read, but is amazingly touching, poignant and captivating.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – This piece of historical fiction by the author of The Color of Water is a new twist on the tale of abolitionist John Brown and his ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry. The fictional “Onion”, a boy Brown plucked from slavery, narrates the story many years later. Onion is at first a reluctant traveling companion to the God-fearing, Bible-preaching Brown, but he comes to love him, and his observations of the foolhardy, yet brave, abolitionist are sharp, yet funny and warm. It took me a while to get absorbed in this book, but I was glad I stuck with it.photo

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — This best-selling novel is both a love story and an immigrant story. Nigerians Ifemulu and Obinze are soulmates, but after Ifemulu leaves for school in America, they are separated for years. Not able to join her, Obinze goes to England on a visitor’s visa and stays after it expires. Both of them struggle to adapt to the new cultures in which they find themselves; perhaps the best part of this book are Ifemulu’s observations on Americans and American life, as seen by an outsider. [The author also has an interesting TED talk about the danger of telling a story from only a single perspective.]

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian – Bohjalian is the only male writer I know who can write believably in a woman’s voice. This time he does it from the perspective of a teenage girl, one who becomes a runaway after a devastating nuclear accident in which both her parents are implicated. We feel her struggles with whom to trust, what choices to make and how to come to terms with all she has lost. Bohjalian is not a “feel-good” writer – there is always loss in his novels – but he tells a compelling story.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo – This is the non-fiction entry on my list, but it reads like a novel.  Boo takes us into life in a Mumbai slum situated right beside the international airport. Juxtaposing the clean and glittery approach to Mumbai that visitors see, with the grim and gritty life of those scratching out a living at its edge in Annawadi, she tells the stories of Abdul, Asha and other residents trying to get ahead, or at least get by. Winner of the National Book Award, this is a story told with great humanity even as it deals with seemingly hopeless situations.

The poet Kyle Dargan has said that, “..being a poet means I notice stuff for a living. To write is to first see or hear some element of the world and then attempt to render it with language.” The books on my list do indeed have poetry in them, and their writers are masters of noticing, rendering and presenting us with the gift of story.

Enjoy!

Most of us can probably rattle off any number of things on a daily basis that stress us out. So when you hear that April is stress awareness month, you’re probably asking why you need a special month to let you know something so obvious. But it is one thing to see the path you’re on, and something quite different to envision where you’d like to be and figure out how to get there.

magicwandWe get so used to living with our stressors that they become like old shoes we don’t even notice are wearing out – until the sole falls off or the heel breaks. To find a new way to live calls for paying attention to that old shoe before it breaks. It requires a heightened awareness of stress, some self-exploration, and a commitment to change. I don’t have a magic wand that will whisk away stress, but I do have a 6-step plan for identifying your stressors, seeing how they affect you, and learning ways to lessen their impact:

  1. Just how stressed are you? Assessment is always a good place to begin, and the Perceived Stress Scale is one way to do that. This scale has been the foremost instrument used in self-reported stress studies for years. It’s quick and easy to score, and you can even see how you compare to averages for your age group and sex.
  2. What are your stress symptoms? Stress affects all of us differently, but there are some common physical, mental and emotional symptoms that are often related to stress. Perhaps that nagging back ache, or the irritability you feel sometimes, are related to stress. Use a symptoms checklist to see how you are faring.
  3. What are your triggers? Is your stress mostly related to the hassles of daily life, such as traffic and time pressures, or do you have bigger issues like chronic illness, relationship problems or financial worries?

Once you know a little more about yourself and your stressors, consider these steps:

  1. Eliminate, or interact differently with, your stressors. The simpler strategies here are delegating tasks and saying no to new commitments. Then consider whether the things you really value are represented in how you spend most of your time – should you make changes to live more in alignment with your values? Another way to change interaction is improving communication – thereby strengthening relationships and perhaps avoiding some conflict-related stress.
  2. Change how you think about your stressors. What’s your story? How do you perceive your situation, your misfortunes, and the hand you’ve been dealt? Practice substituting positive statements for some of the negative self-talk in your mental narration. Use humor to defuse stressful situations. Consider your blessings and express gratitude for them. Bring mindful attention to the people and tasks you deal with.
  3. Live more peacefully with the persistent stressors. Let’s face it – some stressors don’t go away and aren’t that amenable to re-thinking. That’s when social, emotional and spiritual resources come into play. Call on your friends and community for support; cry on someone’s shoulder; talk and laugh with others. Cultivate a spiritual life; feel connected to something bigger than yourself; spend time in nature. And finally, incorporate some kind of relaxation technique into your daily life: meditation, breathing, yoga, and massage are all good choices.Woman in the sun

We can discover santosha (contentment) every day if we look for it. As Walt Whitman said, “Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and the shadows will fall behind you.”

Quick – can you name your five main senses? When was the last time you really tuned in to them? We take the senses for granted, probably relying too much on sight, if anything. Only when we lose one do we appreciate how important it is. As Helen Keller poignantly put it, “Of all the senses, sight must be the most delightful.”

So one way of being more mindful of self and surroundings is to fully utilize all five senses: sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. I have a book from the 1960s called “Sense Relaxation Below Your Mind”. The title conjures up images of psychedelic experiences and love beads, doesn’t it? And the book certainly has a lot of artsy photos of blissful people engaging in touchy-feely exercises in sensory awareness. But it is actually a useful source of ideas for re-establishing your connection to your senses, and using them to mediate your experience of the world.

The thing I like most to do from the book is a sense walk, either in a familiar place or somewhere new. The way to do the sense walk is to concentrate for 3 minutes at a time on just one sense: first sound, then smell, then touch, then sight. After the first four, you sit down and eat something very slowly and mindfully, focusing on taste. You finish the experience by continuing to walk mindfully, seeing if you can fuse all five senses into a complete experience.

When I do a sense walk at this time of year, the signs of spring are foremost in my experience:

What do I hear? Birds singing and chirping more than just a week or two ago, but also sirens, traffic, children playing.

What do I smell? Mulch and manure as plant beds are replenished for the season; cooking aromas; cigarettes.

What do I feel? Everything is warmer to the touch; my feet connect with cobblestones; cool breezes kiss my skin.

What do I see? Forsythia and dogwood are blooming; the Washington Monument comes into view as I walk down the hill; spring break tourists walk dazedly, lugging Disney tote bags.

What do I taste? One piece of chocolate savored for several minutes. It reminds me of eating Almond Joys as a child when I used to nibble around the almonds and save them for last!

The sense walk offers an opportunity for a ‘beginner’s mind’ experience, or as Barbara Sher says, “When you start using senses you’ve neglected, your reward is to see the world with completely fresh eyes.” Instead of listening to the endless chatter of our minds, we start to hear the sounds of nature. Instead of smelling only what is close by, we learn to notice the aromas all around. Instead of being more familiar with the hard plastic of our digital devices than the feel of our own skin, we have a chance to rediscover the touch of something natural. Instead of focusing just on what’s relevant to us, we learn to look around and notice others. And instead of shoving food mindlessly into our mouths, we take the time to truly taste and be nourished.

Sense relaxation is about remembering what you innately know already. It is about giving yourself permission to just let go for a while. It is about being alive to your full experience. Try it.

Tell me your story

Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes isn’t easy. A mile might seem awfully long if the shoes are too big, too small, not your style, or have holes in them. But the ability to slip into the shoes, the skin, or the story of another person is how we practice empathy and become better communicators.

In a program on clinical empathy at Duke University, oncologists are taught to “Never respond to a feeling with a fact.”  When people are in distress, their ability to listen (and hear what is being said) is compromised. They just want their emotions – fear, sadness, confusion, anger – to be acknowledged. Ideally, the person on the other side of the conversation is adept at recognizing emotions and responding appropriately.

Howard Wainer has written that, “It is absolutely crucial to try to determine what information the receiver needs to hear and not let that be overwhelmed by other things that you may want to tell her…the core of effective communication is empathy.” One Duke-trained doctor asks himself before such encounters, “What is needed here?” The answer is not always facts or solutions.

photoOn my computer monitor, I have a sticky note that says FAVE. It’s left over from a communication workshop I took. The acronym stands for “First Acknowledge, Validate, Empathize”. This is especially helpful to practice when you have a difficult or emotionally charged conversation to handle. Even if you don’t agree with someone, it’s important to listen first and acknowledge what you have heard by paraphrasing or repeating back the speaker’s words. Then validate that their feelings are grounded in a solid premise, that they are entitled to have them. Finally, empathize, let the person know that you can identify with those feelings, either because you have felt them yourself, or you imagine you could.

We all know how frustrating it can be to call a customer service number for product support. But even those interactions, where customers and agents inherently have conflicting needs, can often be improved by the use of empathy work. Researchers who studied employees at a telephone call center found that three types of skills – attentive, affective and cognitive – made the difference. The attentive skills were focused on active listening: repeating back, acknowledging, asking for more information and summarizing what was said. The affective skills dealt with being able to recognize customers’ feelings and identifying with them. The cognitive steps came last – taking the customer’s perspective, trying to provide help, and offering options. The most important part of the interaction was the attentive, being able to listen well enough to know what was needed. Sometimes people don’t want to hear, “I’m sorry”, they just want you to solve the problem. Other times, the apology is very much necessary. Attentiveness is key – “what is needed here?”IMG_2325

Have you ever heard, “You just don’t understand!” from someone you love? It hurts, because relationships matter and understanding is their foundation. Essentially, what each of us really wants is to have our story matter, to be heard, to be understood, to have someone else feel what we feel. Novelist Sue Monk Kidd has written, “Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.”

Taking the plunge is the challenge for us. Diving into someone’s story, looking out through their eyes, walking in their shoes. Asking, “What is needed here?”

We see the headlines all the time: “Stress makes you sick,” “Work makes you stressed,” “Stress makes you fat,” even “Stress Kills.” But why does all this happen? Why is stress so dangerous, and how do we know?

Luckily for us, there are a lot of outstanding neuroscientists, social scientists and others who are devoting their careers to answering these questions. Many of them are women, so in honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, I thought I would profile a few of them and the highlights from their work.

What socioemotional resources are available to us during stress and where do they originate?

Shelley E. Taylor is a Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA and winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. She is perhaps best known for the “Tend and Befriend” theory: the idea that our response to stressful situations is not always “fight or flight.” Sometimes primates, especially females, seek out social relationships to protect themselves and their offspring during stress. These “affiliative” behaviors may be mediated by the hormone oxytocin, or in men, vasopressin, which may act as a thermostat for social resources, triggering a hormone response when our social support goes too low.holding_hands1

How exactly does stress age us and why are we more likely to develop chronic diseases as we age?

It turns out that we have little caps on the ends of our chromosomes called “telomeres”. These are bit like the tips at the ends of our shoelaces. Just like shoelace tips, the telomeres stabilize the ends of the chromosomes and keep them from unraveling. Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider (along with Jack W. Szostak) won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work on how telomeres protect the chromosomes and how the enzyme telomerase maintains the length of the telomeres even as the cells divide. If we don’t have enough telomerase, and cells keep dividing as they do, eventually telomeres get so short that cells die — limiting years of healthy life. And guess what has an impact on telomerase — stress!image

How does that cell aging manifest itself physically and psychologically?

Elissa Epel of UCSF studies cell aging in people with major depression and those who suffer acute and chronic psychosocial stress. She has focused on the role of telomerase and the stress pathways that lead to early aging, overeating, abdominal obesity and immune responses. She is also involved with interventions using mindfulness and social support to help lower stress reactivity and improve emotion regulation.

How does social status impact our stress levels and their health consequences?

Carol Shively, of Wake Forest University, studies monkeys and other primates to explore how social stress might lead to depression and greater susceptibility to disease. She has found that animals who are lower on the social ladder for extended periods of time have twice as much hardening of the arteries as dominant animals. Other studies have shown similar patterns in humans.

Why do we want to eat comfort food during stress, and why do we gain fat around the abdomen?

Comfort foods and abdominal fat actually reduce stress and make us feel better. Mary Dallman, also at UCSF, studies the brain-pituitary-adrenal interrelationships and how chronic stress effects changes in energy balance. She has found that every type of cell in the body has receptors for glucocorticoids [stress hormones], which means that stress can potentially cause havoc everywhere. It also leads to an increase in the synthesis of fat and glucose, while protein synthesis declines, throwing off how we process the food we eat.

In spite of all this stress, how can we be happy?

Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at UC Riverside, and winner of the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, studies human happiness, what makes people happy, and how people can become happier. Her work shows that while we all have temperaments that make us more or less happy to begin with, a fairly significant percentage of our potential for happiness is open to change. Her research has found that generally happy people tend to interpret events in a positive way that supports their happiness, while chronically unhappy people tend to interpret the same events in ways that bolster their unhappiness. So she also studies how the thoughts and behaviors of the naturally happy people an be encouraged or taught to those who are less positive.

The takeaways from all of this work are 1) stress is toxic; 2) it affects all of us; and 3) there are ways to reduce its impact on our health. I’m grateful to these scientists, and so many others, for the intellect and passion they have devoted to this work. It has informed my teaching, inspired my writing and improved my personal wellness.

 

 

Seeking truth and beauty

On our journey to better health and wellness, the spiritual dimension can be like the elephant in the room. We know somehow that it is important, but talking about it and figuring out what it means can be uncomfortable. So we avoid it as long as we can, before realizing that a fit body and mind only go so far if your spiritual health is struggling.

What is spiritual wellness? Every definition stresses that it is personal and individual. No one can create a mold for spiritual wellness and fit you into it. It involves your values and beliefs, the meaning you attach to life events and your existence, your sense of purpose in life. But some general components of spiritual wellness include having and demonstrating some purpose, the ability to be compassionate to others, the ability to forgive, the ability to spend solitary time in reflection, and aiming for a certain harmony about your relationship to the world. One of the things that make people squirmy about spirituality is confusing it with religious practice. But while religion certainly encompasses a sense of spirituality, the inverse is not true. Spirituality does not have to include any religious belief.

When we write goals for wellness, we can include spiritual values and goals as part of the overall plan, as John Evans suggests in Wellness and Writing Connections. He also proposes affirming spiritual wellness by writing “notes to yourself when you notice beauty, truth, peace, hope, courage, kindness, love, compassion.” These notes can be an antidote to our daily dose of stories about conflict, violence and hate. Writing them down helps us to remember them, and gives us something to return to repeatedly for spiritual nourishment.  A few months ago, for instance, I wrote myself a note about a 10-year-old boy who was learning how to grow a garden. He told a newspaper reporter that, “You give it love and care like you would a baby. You feed and water it.” I often like to let my mind rest on that child’s simple message of truth and love.IMG_0121

I also wrote myself a note when I read And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. He included part of a poem by the 13th century poet Jelaluddin Rumi that goes like this:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense.

Here too, I find truth and beauty that resonate with each reading.

Author Gail Radley writes that “Human beings are meaning-makers,” but “to make meaning and find purpose, we must expand our vision [by] stepping into the realm of spirituality, into belief in something larger than ourselves.” Stepping into the realm of spirituality means sensing unity with other people, with other creatures, and with nature, and seeing your connection to the larger environment. It means meeting the world from that inner soulful place that is your best self. That’s the place from which we say “Namaste” at the end of a yoga practice. It translates to something like, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” It is a way of expressing gratitude for the spark of goodness and beauty in another.

Where is the field of grass where you can let your soul lie down? Where do you find truth and beauty, hope and courage, kindness and compassion?

Contentment is hard to find in January. There’s a letdown after the holiday months of November and December. Many of us are experiencing winter at its harshest. And the resolutions that we made a month ago with optimism and enthusiasm have collapsed, wavered, or become a struggle to maintain. It’s easy to fall into patterns of judging ourselves pretty harshly and with a lot of negativity. If ever there was a time to practice self-compassion, this is it.

This morning, feeling like I needed to start my days in a more positive way, I hauled myself out to an early yoga class. When it came time to set an intention for the practice, I realized that I rarely set an intention or dedication of love toward myself. I usually send love and compassion to someone else in my life, or if I do direct an intention toward myself, it leans toward self-improvement: Energy! Patience! Greater productivity! I’ve become attached to outcomes in a big way, and forgotten to treat myself with the care and kindness of a good friend.

By the end of January, it’s easy to get into patterns of negativity and isolation, beating ourselves up about not reaching our goals, and cocooning ourselves at home with TV and comfort food while we wait for spring. But by looking forward rather than in, we miss an opportunity to flourish right now. Practicing self-compassion can, on the other hand, help us realize greater emotional well-being and more of that elusive feeling of contentment.

Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, says that there are three core components to self-compassion: self-kindness, recognition of common humanity, and mindfulness. Mindfulness means that we acknowledge our pain and discontent, our flaws and our failures, along with all of our good qualities. But we don’t feel isolated by those imperfections and our mistakes don’t feel so personal, because by recognizing our common humanity, we see that everyone else has the same needs and desires, and ups and downs that we have. And by directing loving kindness to ourselves and others, we reap a lot of potential benefits.

Neff’s research has shown that people who have more self-compassion experience less anxiety and depression, and have increases in happiness, optimism and other positive emotions. They engage in less negative self-talk, and their self-esteem  stays higher when something goes wrong for them, because they realize that everyone makes mistakes and they don’t take it so personally.

Author Karen Armstrong says that, “Compassion is a practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently every day.” The recommended way of practicing compassion is through loving kindness and compassion meditations. Here is an example of loving kindness meditation (practice it by directing it first to yourself, then one-by-one to others: benefactors/teachers, beloved friends and family, a neutral person, a difficult person):

May I be happy.

May I be peaceful.

May I be safe from harm.

May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May I experience ease and well-being in body, mind and spirit.

And a compassion meditation (practice the same way as loving kindness):

May I be free from suffering.

May I hold myself with softness and care.

May I be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May I be free from the suffering caused by greed [or anger, fear, confusion, etc]

May I experience ease of body, mind and spirit.

May I respond to suffering with compassion.

Each time I go through these meditations, I return to the line, “May I hold myself with softness and care”, because I know that sometimes this is the thing we forget in our day-to-day lives. Softness and care, rather than harsh judgment: That’s what we need in January, and beyond.

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